The Genesis of the Idea
HE STORY OF HOW Charles Haddon Spurgeon preached his first sermon at a cottage meeting in the little village of Teversham, and how as a result of the ability shown therein he was placed upon the plan of village preachers in the Cambridge district, has been told too often to need repetition here. It was not long before he was invited to the permanent pastorate of Waterbeach Chapel, and the fame of the young divineyoung in years but old in spiritual experience and in skill as a teacher and expositor of Holy Writsoon spread for miles around, so that when he was occupying the pulpit men and women drove in from outlying villages in large numbers, and the chapel, hitherto half empty, was filled to excess with an expectant and devout congregation. And that it was not mere eloquence that attracted and held the people was proved in a very short time, for the whole character of the villagehitherto noted above other local villages for its sin and indifference to religionwas changed, and the results of Spurgeon's work have lived to the present day. His preaching was indeed "the power of God unto salvation," and scarcely a service passed without there being known cases of conversion.
Such a preacher could not be confined to his own little circle and chapel, and invitations from various churches round, from Cambridge as well as from the smaller villages, poured in. His fame was noised abroad more than ever, and at last reached London, whence he received an invitation to preach at the New Park Street Chapel, an important church ministered to by a succession of famous preachers, including Benjamin Keach [from 1668 to 1704], Dr. John Gill [from 1720 to 1771], and Dr. John Rippon [from 1773 to 1836]. It is not surprising that the youthhe was not yet twenty years of age and very modestshould think some mistake had been made, but when he found that he was indeed the Charles Haddon Spurgeon whose services were sought, he accepted the invitation with much fear and trembling. Only a country youth who has been to London on some important and responsible mission can understand what this visit meant to the young preacher. Unsophisticated, ignorant of the ways of the great city, and entertaining an altogether exaggerated idea of the importance and requirements of cultured Londoners, he arrived on a dull December evening in 1853, spent a miserable, sleepless night in a Bloomsbury boarding house, and entered the pulpit of New Park Street Chapel with much trepidation. The congregation was small, and, looking to God for strength, he felt a sense of divine comfort and help which reassured him and enabled him to preach a powerful sermon from the text, "Every good and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning" (James 1:17). How far from being a novice at preaching the young man was, may be gathered from the fact that this was his 673rd sermon. It took the people by storm. Many a long week had passed since such a sermon had been heard in their church, and more than one hearer realized that the preacher was destined for great things. At night the chapel was nearly full. The morning worshippers had spoken with delight to their friends of the spiritual feast which they had enjoyed, and the evening congregation was as a result more than double that of the morning. The text of C. H. Spurgeon's second sermon in London was Rev. 14:5, "They are without fault before the throne of God," and, as we know, the congregation at the conclusion of the service was too excited to leave the chapel, and made the deacons promise to invite the young preacher to the vacant pastorate.
It is needless to repeat in detail the oft-told story how the young minister was asked to supply for six months, but his modesty forbade him agreeing to more than three months at a time; how directly after he commenced his ministry the chapel was crowded to the doors: how without waiting for the completion of the period of probation he was urged by the deacons to accept the pastorate, and how after much prayer and self-examination he agreed. London at once rang with his fame. People flocked from all directions; the chapel became too small, and Exeter Hall was engaged for the evening services, hundreds of would-be hearers even then being excluded owing to lack of room. Prominent men in the literary, political and social worlds went to hear him, and all who were qualified to speak with authority bestowed the greatest praise upon his preaching, both as to matter and manner. Said Sheridan Knowles, the ex-actor and playwright, to his ministerial students at Stepney College"Go and hear the Cambridgeshire lad at once. He is only a boy, but he is the most wonderful preacher in the world. He is absolutely perfect in his oratory; he has nothing to learn from me or from anyone else. He is simply perfect. He knows everything . . . Why, boys, he can do anything he pleases with his audience! He can make them laugh and cry and laugh again in five minutes. His power was never equaled. Now, mark my words, boys, that young man will live to be the greatest preacher of this or any other age. He will bring more souls to Christ than any man who ever proclaimed the gospel, not excepting the Apostle Paul. His name will be known everywhere, and his sermons will be translated into many languages of the world." A remarkable prophecy made in 1854, just after C. H. Spurgeon had become pastor at New Park Street, which was literally fulfilled, as this little book will show.
Many writers in religious and secular journals expressed the opinion that the new preacher was a worthy successor to Bunyan and Wesley and Whitefield, and that he would rival, if not eclipse, such men as William Carey, Gill, Rippon and Robert Hall. In the Morning Advertiser, James Grant wrote"He is quite an original preacher and therefore will always draw large congregations, and consequently may be eminently made the means of doing great good to classes of persons who might never otherwise be brought within the sound of a faithfully preached Gospel. He has evidently made George Whitefield his model, and, like that unparalleled preacher, that prince of pulpit orators, is very fond of striking apostrophes." Later James Grant noted with pleasure that popular applause had not spoiled the preacher, and continued, "With regard again to our other fear, that his excellence as a preacher would not be sustained, the event has, we rejoice to say, no less agreeably proved the groundlessness of our apprehensions. There is no falling off whatever. On the contrary, he is in some respects improving with the lapse of time. We fancy we can see his striking originality to greater advantage that at first." Of course there were some who condemned and abused the young preacher, but these were either older ministers jealous of his success, or ignorant journalists eager to make "copy." The former were severely taken to task by the Rev. Edwin Paxton Hood, who wrote of Spurgeon that he had"the unbridled and undisciplined fancy of Hervey without his elegance; but instead of that, the drollery of Berridge and the ubiquitous earnestness of Rowland Hill in his best days." "For bold and convincing statements of Evangelical truth," he concluded, "for a faithful grappling with convictions, for happy and pertinent illustrations, for graphic description and for searching common sense we shall look, and we believe we shall seldom look in vain. In a word, he preachesnot to metaphysicians or logiciansneither to poets nor to savantsto masters of erudition or masters of rhetoric; he preaches to men."
But perhaps the best and keenest criticism of C. H. Spurgeon's preaching on his arrival in London was written by a Mr. Hare, who said"His voice is clear and musical; his language plain; his style flowing, but terse; his method lucid and orderly; his matter sound and suitable; his tone and spirit cordial; his remarks always pithy and pungent, sometimes familiar and colloquial, yet never light or coarse, much less profane. Judging from a single sermon, we supposed that he would become a plain, faithful, forcible and affectionate preacher of the Gospel in the form called Calvinistic; and our judgment was the more favorable because, while there was a solidity beyond his years, we detected little of the wild luxuriance naturally characteristic of very young preachers."
We have given at some length the opinions of competent and critical authorities upon C. H. Spurgeon's preaching, to show that it appealed to educated men and women who were free from bias, and this was proved more amply by the fact that for years the preacher's congregations included many prominent personsliterary men like Ruskin, judges and statesmen, members of Parliament, peers and peeresses. But if this was the case, how much more did it appeal to the middle and lower classes? Not for a long time had a prominent preacher condescended to preach the simple Gospel in plain English, free from classical quotations and overburdened rhetoric. The common people heard him gladly because they could understand his sermons, and hence they flocked to New Park Street Chapel and to Exeter Hall, and afterwards to the Surrey Gardens Music Hall and the Metropolitan Tabernacle, in such numbers that not more than a half could find accommodation.
It was this, together with the fact that the interest in Charles Haddon Spurgeon was now getting pretty general all over the country, that led to the earliest publication of his sermons in pamphlet form. That was an age of "penny pulpits," and one of the most successful series was published by Mr. James Paul. Up to the time of his advent to London none of C. H. Spurgeon's sermons had appeared in print, although, as he tells us, "Before I ever entered a pulpit the thought had occurred to me that I should one day preach sermons which would be printed. While reading the penny sermons of Joseph Irons, which were great favorites with me, I conceived in my heart the idea that some time or other I should have a Penny Pulpit of my own." His first printed effort was No. 1 of "Waterbeach Tracts," published in 1853 while the young minister was still at the Cambridgeshire village, but this was specially written for the occasion. It was in August, 1854, that the first discourse was printed and published by Mr. Paul. The sermon was preached at New Park Street Chapel on the 20th of the month, and the text was 1 Samuel 12:17, "Is it not wheat harvest today?" It has since been republished in the Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit #2896 (Vol. 50). This appeared as no. 2234 of Paul's Penny Pulpit under the title "Harvest Time," and it sold rapidly and extensively. Then other discourses appeared in Mr. Paul's series, and The Baptist Messenger, a small monthly paper that had just been launched, made its special feature in each issue a sermon by the minister of New Park Street. The first discourse to be published in the little paper was from the text Psalm 84:6, and was entitled, "The Valley of Weeping." It appeared in the September issue, 1854, and was given the place of honor on the opening pages. The circulation of The Baptist Messenger at once went up and showed conclusively that there was a large public eager and anxious for C. H. Spurgeon's sermons in print.